The Arrogance of Competence

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” – Larry King

Often, the biggest danger we face in our careers is not the challenge of our competition nor the envy of those we surpass but what happens to us when we become good.

By good I mean competent. I’m referring to the kind of skill you can develop after spending 600 to 1,000 hours perfecting some ability – speaking a foreign language, dancing the Salsa, managing a growing business.

When you begin acquiring a new skill – whatever innate talent you possess – your day-to-day experience of doing the thing involves frustration and embarrassment. Frustration because, no matter how hard you try, you can’t do it very well. And embarrassment because you know that other people can see your lacking.

Most people give up during this stage. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say that 90% of the times people make a commitment to learn a new skill they fail to achieve it because they can’t stand the frustration and embarrassment of their initial incompetence.

That number shouldn’t surprise you. As an achievement-oriented person (why else would you read ETR?), you are way above the average when it comes to following through on promises to yourself. Even so, consider how many times you’ve started to learn some new skill and abandoned it after a few weeks or even days.

Those who persevere reap the rewards. But how many of them take their competence to the next level? Not many.

If we can agree that at least 90% of people who set out to learn a new skill don’t follow through, what percentage of the 10% who achieve competence go on to achieve mastery? In answering this, keep in mind that mastering a skill takes about five times as long as learning to become good at it.

My guess is another 90%. That is, of the 10% of those who become competent, only 10% of them go beyond competence to mastery. Think of that. 10% of 10%. If I’m right, that means only 1% of those who set out to learn a skill end up mastering it.

There are many reasons why most people never achieve a level of skill beyond competence. One good one: Competence is usually good enough. It’s usually enough to keep your job, to earn a decent living, and to enjoy the respect of your colleagues.

But achieving competence is not enough if you want to do something extraordinary with your life. If you want to be more than just good … if you’d like to be great in at least one thing … then you have to be prepared to do what it takes to master a skill.

And what does it take?

First, about 5,000 hours of practice. As a competent practitioner of your chosen craft, you’ve already put in 600 to 1,000 hours. To achieve mastery, plan on spending another 3,000 to 4,400 hours practicing it.

Pay attention to that word “practicing.” There is a difference between plying a trade and practicing a skill. If, for example, you’ve become a competent copywriter and spend 40 hours a week for two years (about 100 weeks) writing copy, you’ll have logged in 4,000 more hours. But unless you are actually learning something during those 4,000 hours, you are not moving forward on the path to mastery.

To get beyond good to great, you have to (1) not only put in thousands of hours perfecting the skill but also (2) invest your full conscious awareness – of your mistakes as well as your progress – into those thousands of hours.

Having finally achieved competence in your chosen field, you have earned the right to be proud of your accomplishments. But it’s a shame to see learning stop at good, grow conceited, and then wither on the vine. Yes, you should be happy with what you’ve done so far. But if you intend to do even more, you have to stop focusing on what you can do and begin to concentrate on what you can’t.

I’m looking at a report from a conference we recently sponsored. The report summarizes the conference-goers’ ratings of about a dozen featured speakers. Every one of those speakers did a good job of sharing his knowledge with the conference attendees.

But some speakers scored much higher than others in terms of audience approval. Two speakers stood out. One was BB, a natural-born speaker. His score: 92. The other was SP, a guy who used to be terrified of speaking in public. (Before, that is, he put in hours and hours of continued practice to master the skill.) His score: 89.

Here’s how the rest of the scores went:

73

72

69

63

62

58

(etc.)

Note the dramatic drop-off after BB and SP’s scores. More than 15 points! I’ve reviewed dozens of such audience-rating surveys before and I can tell you from experience that there is a very big difference between 90 and 80, between 80 and 70, and so on. A score of 90 means very good. The 70s are okay. Below the 70s? Let’s just say “disappointing.” I didn’t expect everyone who spoke that day to be phenomenally good. Many of them, I knew full well, were new to public speaking. But I encouraged them all to take advantage of Virginia Avery’s coaching. (As you know, she’s ETR’s public-speaking expert.) Some of them did. But most of them didn’t.

I wonder about those who refused the help. What were they thinking? I’m sure they felt like they were very busy and couldn’t afford the time. But those are just excuses. What really was in their minds when they said to themselves, “I don’t need any help as a public speaker? I’m good enough as I am.”

Was it fear? Was it delusion? Or was it a bit of arrogance?

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Think about what you are doing – the specific skills you employ to achieve your life goals. (I’ll give you a hint. The three most important are thinking well, speaking well, and writing well.) Ask yourself, “Even if I don’t intend to master all of these skills, am I working assiduously to get better at them every day?

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Bitsow

    Malcolm Gladwell writes about 10,000 hours and you say you should practice 5,000 hours. If we choose your plan you would then only be half successful as compared to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” The story of success.